Jew Review: “The Prom”

The Prom has two intersecting storylines: one is a simple story about a gay girl in the small, fictional town of Edgewater, Indiana. Emma wants to go to her high school prom with her girlfriend, Alyssa. But the homophobic parents in this economically depleted Midwestern factory town won’t have it, and so the PTA cancels the prom.

Meanwhile, in New York City, a pair of aging, hammy Spanx-wearing Broadway actors – one a diva and self-designated gay icon, Dee Dee Allen (Courtney Balan), and the other, a campy, gay, Jewish, former Drama Desk Award winner, Barry Glickman (Patrick Wetzel) — are getting tight at Sardi’s after their latest show, “Eleanor!” (a musical about Eleanor Roosevelt), opens and closes the same night after getting panned by the critics.

At the bar, they are joined by two slightly younger colleagues, whose careers are also in the dumps: Angie Dickenson (Emily Borromeo), who has spent the past 20 years as the understudy for Roxie Hart in one of the touring companies of “Chicago,” and Trent Oliver (Bud Weber), who is between gigs, and who mentions in every conversation that he attended Juilliard (when he’s recognized at all, it is for having for playing “the guy” in an obscure children’s television show about a guy and a hand). The four washed-up thespians put their heads together to try to figure out what they can possibly do to rehabilitate their careers, which, in the case of Dee Dee and Barry will also mean cleaning up their reputation for narcissism.

Back in Indiana, Emma, who is shy and practical, wants to let the whole thing go, but the school’s principal, Mr. Hawkins (a compelling Sinclair Mitchell) insists that this is a civil rights case and that she must fight. He has contacted the ACLU, who agree to come to Edgewater and take on the case, and Emma reluctantly goes along.

How do actors prove that they are not narcissists? Why, by performing activism, of course! They set about searching for a “cause” — something (anything!) that they can attach themselves to in order to appear altruistic. They come upon a tweet about Emma’s plight, which they conclude would be perfect for their purposes. Either naïve or self-absorbed enough to think that they will arrive at the high school, simply belt out a few rousing songs about tolerance, and turn the town around while they get tons of publicity.

Of course, the plan backfires. They are all ready to turn around and go back to New York in defeat, but Emma’s situation pulls on their heartstrings. Barry tries to fuel Emma’s courage and inspire her to stand up for herself.

The ACLU wins:  legally the school is obliged to let Emma (who appears to be the only out student) attend the prom.  However, rather than open their prom to gay teens, the meanies in the PTA deviously plan a second, unofficial prom in a local banquet hall, and they don’t tell Emma about it. This isn’t a spoiler — it’s based on a true story (more on that in a moment).

All dressed up and excited at last to dance with Alyssa, Emma enters an empty gym, and she could not be more devastated – unless, she says, someone were to drop a bucket of blood over her head. (There is at least one other reference to Carrie in the show.)

It breaks her heart; she says it is the worst day of her life and begs the actors to go home. But Barry refuses, and gets the others to follow his lead, in pulling together enough money and effort to book a talk show on which Emma can appear and make her case to the public.

It all sounds terribly clichéd, I know, but the thing about The Prom is that it has real heart. This is a very, very sweet, and very idealistic play, with bouncy tunes, clever lyrics, and a terrifically talented cast of actors and dancers whose joy is infectious.

The Prom premiered in Atlanta in 2016 and ran on Broadway from October 2018 to August 2019. The original national tour had to be postponed because of the Pandemic; we can be grateful to Hennepin Theatre Trust for rescheduling it, bringing this cool, sweet, funny show to Twin Cities audiences at long last. It is well worth the wait.

The main plot was inspired by the true story of Constance McMillen who, in 2010, was not allowed to bring her girlfriend to the Agricultural High School Prom in Itawamba County, Mississippi. The PTA and others wouldn’t hear of it, and they canceled the prom. As in the play, the ACLU got involved and the story went viral – and more viral still after the school parents organized a separate prom for the entire student body, excluding Constance.

The book was co-written by Bob Martin (who won a Tony Award for his work on The Drowsy Chaperone) and Chad Beguelin; Beguelin was also responsible for the clever lyrics. The score was composed by Matthew Sklar (who also is Jewish), and the show was directed and – sensationally – choreographed by Casey Nicholaw.

The Prom works as well it does, I think, because it balances its sentimentality with satire and because it is essentially and quite wonderfully modest. The play makes no pretensions to be anything more than what it is and lets us enjoy its simplicity.

As for standouts, I can’t imagine this play’s being as delightful as it is without the very charming and endearing Kaden Kearney in the lead role of Emma. The actor brings genuine emotion to Emma; plus they really know how to build a song. Wetzel’s Glickman finds in a mostly shticky role a heartrending vulnerability, subtly (and only gradually) revealing hints of an abiding sadness underlying the banter and showman’s panache. We see it, especially in his one big song, “Barry is going to the Prom” – a kind of imaginary missive to his 17-year-old self (who never got to go to his prom) and to the mother who broke off contact 30 years earlier.

Mitchell as Mr. Hawkins, the school principal, takes a role that is not particularly interesting and lends it personality and feeling. I found his lovely ballad, “We Look to You,” in which he explains to Dee Dee why he loves theater and why she must never quit performing, truly moving. There are so many excellent performances (there’s not a weak link in this cast), but I want especially to give a shoutout to the dazzling dance ensemble. This show has a serious dance chorus (dance captain Lexie Plath, assistant dance captain, Josh Zacher), made up of highly trained and incredibly energetic dancers. Nicholaw’s frequently witty and sometimes thrilling choreography allows all of the dancers to express their individuality. (The program just identifies them as “Ensemble,” but keep your eyes peeled for the guy with a red baseball cap and for the young woman with the chin-length blond hair in the Act One finale, “Tonight Belongs to You.” Both are terrific).

With all its charm, the play can feel a little dated — or at least a little innocent — particularly with respect to its central ethos: that intolerance (in the form of homophobia) is only a matter of simple ignorance. If you just talk to people, it says, and get them to see that they are not being nice or good they will instantly give up their non-goodness, and acceptance and warm understanding will follow. In other words, intolerant people are just misled. In the summer of 2016, the show was seen as “barrier-breaking,” a celebration of the burgeoning acceptance of LGBTQ rights and freedoms and the show captures that hopefulness. But so much has happened in the mere six years between the play’s first performance and now. The world has changed and many of us have come to learn, painfully, that changing hearts and minds is a lot harder than just a Juilliard graduate going to the local Seven-11 and leading some of the high school kids in a “white gospel” chorus that asks them to reconsider what Jesus would do, or a young lesbian pouring her “unruly heart” out on TikTok.

But if — or actually, precisely because — The Prom appears to belong to another, earlier world, I found it enchanting to spend an evening back there. Go to the Orpheum and drink in the sheer pleasure. It is a fine kind of escape, and sometimes we all need a little escapism.